The World Masterpiece Theater as a “production model”

What is it that makes Japanese animation unique? What is it that makes it stand out from other traditions of animation, such as animation as it is or was practiced and made in the United States, Western or Easter Europe, other great countries or regions with a long and rich animation history? Many answers have been offered to this complex question, but for me, one of the most appealing is the one arguing that commercial Japanese animation, or anime, has a specific “production model”. By that, I meant that anime is made, sold and distributed according to specific methods that differ from how animation is made, sold and distributed in other parts of the world. However, when one investigates anime history more deeply, this answer quickly seems overly simplistic: indeed, there is no singular “anime production model” which has existed since the 1950s and has stayed the same until today. Some elements have remained the same, but there are just as many variations. There is not one, but many production models which have coexisted through time. 

Anne of Green Gables

Anne of Green Gables is one of the most popular works in the World Masterpiece Theater series, both in Japan and in the English-speaking sphere. According to many of those who have seen it, it may even qualify for the title of best anime of all time. It also represents a historical turning point: it is the first entry in the time slot that was now officially called “World Masterpiece Theater”, instead of “Calpis Children’s Theater” (1975-1977) or “Calpis Family Theater” (1978). And yet, it is perhaps the most imperfect among Isao Takahata’s three shows for Zuiyo Video/Nippon Animation, and by far one of the most difficult productions that the director, studio and all the artists involved had known. This latter, darker aspect of Anne appears to be at best underdiscussed, or at worst completely unknown, in English-speaking circles. While providing a detailed commentary and analysis of the show as well as its place in anime history and Isao Takahata’s career, this article also aims to raise awareness and shed light on those somber moments.

The Story of Perrine

Like its 1977 predecessor Rascal the Raccoon, 1978’s The Story of Perrine is among the least-known World Masterpiece Theater entries in the English-speaking sphere. Such does not seem to be the case in Japan, where a recent popularity poll placed it second, ahead of such popular entries as Anne of Green Gables or A Dog of Flanders. The easiest explanation for this is probably that, as we will see, Perrine is among the most melodramatic in the WMT’s 70s lineup. But, just like Rascal and Flanders, it is a very uneven production - although it may be the best non-Takahata work in the series in some aspects.

Rascal the Raccoon

The World Masterpiece Theater entry for the year 1976, Marco, pushed studio Nippon Animation and the artists associated with it to their limits. As a result, the year 1977 was marked by disorganization, as most of Marco’s staff temporarily or definitively left the WMT, and the series for that year, Rascal the Raccoon, brought on new, possibly inexperienced, and simply less notable artists. This article will therefore not only focus on Rascal, but on two other works: the first is another Nippon show, Jacky the Bearcub, which counted among its staff most of Marco’s main artists: directors Isao Takahata and Seiji Okuda, and animators Toshiyasu Okada, Kôichi Murata, Reiko Okuyama and Yôichi Kotabe. The other is a completely different production, the first film by studio Shin-Ei, Tenguri, Boy of the Plains, which reunited Yasuo Otsuka and his students outside of Nippon Animation. Just a year before Future Boy Conan, 1977’s Rascal and Tenguri were the last works on which Hayao Miyazaki made significant contributions as a key animator. They therefore represent a turning point in his career, as well as that of all other artists who had been revolving around World Masterpiece Theater productions.

From the Apennines to the Andes

oxical reception and reputation. In Japan, it is just as well considered as Isao Takahata’s other two entries in the World Masterpiece Theater, with entire generations of animators (chief among them Takashi Nakamura, Satoru Utsunomiya and Toshiyuki Inoue) counting it as one of their sacred texts. In English-language discourse, while Marco is extremely well-considered among those who have seen it, their number is small, and Marco is far from being as popular as Heidi or Anne. This article will not aim to provide reasons for this state of affairs, but to give a thorough presentation and commentary on Marco and its importance in Isao Takahata’s career, the World Masterpiece Theater, and anime history at large.

A Dog of Flanders

Flanders is among the most well-known works in the World Masterpiece Theater canon, both in Japan and overseas; it is perhaps the most famous outside of the select list of Isao Takahata’s entries in the series. Such fame is not surprising when one considers Flanders’ tragic finale, and the fact that this ultimate episode reportedly reached the highest audience rating in the history of the World Masterpiece Theater - an impressive 30.1%. However, it is also questionable whether such fame is really deserved - indeed, Flanders is perhaps the most imperfect show among 1970’s World Masterpiece Theater entries. There is of course a sort of contradiction here - how is it that such a poorly made series became so popular? The aim of this article is precisely to answer this - to illustrate the elements that make Flanders a subpar work, and to understand how it could have been such a success nevertheless.

Heidi, Girl of the Alps

Heidi, Girl of the Alps needs no introduction. One of the most important and influential works in the history of Japanese animation, Isao Takahata’s first series for Zuiyo Video would set a gold standard for all subsequent World Masterpiece Theater entries. Much has already been said about Heidi, especially on its status as a so-called “pre-Ghibli” work or on how representative it is of Takahata’s style and philosophy. Considering the theme of this series, this article will instead put Heidi back in its historical context: that of the extended World Masterpiece canon, and of 1974 anime.

Yama Nezumi Rocky Chuck

Yama Nezumi Rocky Chuck, known in the English-speaking world as Fables of the Green Forest, can be considered the first show to fit into the extended World Masterpiece Theater canon: it was the first production of studio Zuiyo Video, which would become Nippon Animation, to take place in the consecrated Sunday 19:30 time slot on Fuji TV.

The history of TMS – Part 3 : The watershed years

In 1973, anime celebrated its first decade of existence. But the anime industry in 1973 was almost a world apart from what it was 10 years earlier : the production system had become almost set to what it mostly still is today, the manpower had immensely grown and the studio organization had evolved. Moreover, new people had started producing their own original works, people whose names would be among the most famous in anime history.